Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Baffle Them with Big Words

There is an appropriate place for long words and technical language. There are some things which are difficult or laborious to say in ordinary language. Also, such words can add precision to the discussion of a specialized subject. But they can also be used to confuse and confound rather than to clarify. This is especially true of words that lack any clear definition (or perhaps have more than one, and the speaker can easily slip from one to another). It does not help here that there can be words that have a definite meaning but are difficult to define (for instance "democracy"). But it is also possible for people to use questionable words in a sort of conjuring game which enables them to palm the ace in an argument.

Another similar trick is to change the meanings of words from their ordinary meaning to a specialized one. Now again, there can be an appropriate place for this. There can be contexts in which giving a word a specialized meaning to serve a special purpose can clarify things. (For instance, the word "saved" has a specialized meaning in a Christian context, but it is useful if understood.) But this procedure can also be used to confuse the issue. Take the current use of the word "tolerant" in a way different from, and  even in conflict with, its tradition meaning. "Toleration" has traditionally meant trying to get along with people you disagree with. Today it has become a basis for suppressing those who have differing opinions.

Even better as a veil is the use of words, often even simple words, in a vague mystical fashion that avoids any precise meaning. Broad  words such as "life," "love," and "freedom" can often be used in this way. When a word eludes all attempts to pin it down, it often fits in this category. Sometimes these vague ideas can be personified to almost imply a real purpose involved (such as life fighting its way up from amoeba  to man) when there is none.

The conclusion here is: Be careful of being impressed or swayed by complicated words and fancy rhetoric. A good question to ask is, "What does that mean in plain English?" If it cannot be put into simple language, it could be it is because it has no real meaning. If it sounds like it makes no sense, it could be because it does not. One thing I have always found helpful here is teaching children. If you cannot explain your theology to a 3rd or 4th grader, you do not really understand your theology. Or perhaps it does not make that much sense in the first place. Also, as Christians we are commanded to observe straightforward honesty (1 Thessalonians 2:4,5; Ephesians 4:14,15; Matthew 5:33-37), so we should speak the truth of God in its simplicity (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). And we should use care not to be taken in by the outward appearances of words.

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